Dreams from My Father

A Story of Race and Inheritance

by Barack Obama


Absolutely mind-blowing to read this and then realize that it was written in 1995—before he had held any political office, before he had achieved anything more than local notoriety in Chicago’s South Side for particularly effective community campaigning. I read the 2004 edition, which has a foreword from him in between his win of the Democratic primary and the general election, and this how they describe the author:
BARACK OBAMA is the junior U.S. senator from Illinois. He began his career as a community organizer in some of Chicago’s poorest communities and then attended Harvard Law School, where he was elected the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. In 1992, he directed Illionis Project VOTE, which registered 150,000 new voters. From 1997 to 2004, he served as a three-term state senator from Chicago’s South Side. In addition to his legislative duties, he has been a senior lecturer in constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School, practiced civil rights law, and served on the board of directors of various charitable organizations.

I wonder how many people reading this in the 20th century thought that the author would then go on to be the first Black president.

I… don’t understand how Obama isn’t more of a hero? Maybe this is a consequence of my particular political environment growing up, but I’ve only ever heard people mention Obama as either a devil president, not progressive enough, or just “good” and “better than McCain or Romney.” The right-wing take is that his campaign in 2012 was the precursor to most of the racial animus we see today, as it attempted to build a minority coalition, but frankly I don’t really see that.

This is a man who was born in Hawaii to a black father and a white mother, was raised in Indonesia for a significant portion of his formative years, spent time in and and out of radical activist movements, and was simply deeply good, if a bit naive at times. Sure, have skepticism from a memoir. But this just seems like a correct and accurate description of his early life, especially when his incentives to misrepresent the truth were…not that large?

He’s still happily married to Michelle. He hasn’t had any personal scandals. He writes so well, and has clearly wanted to give and give at substantial expense to himself throughout his life. He cares (cared) deeply about his family, his ancestry, his place in the world, and still makes the argument that it shouldn’t define him. If/when I have kids, and if/when they ask me who the greatest Americans were, Obama has to be on the list.

Sure, I suppose we can judge him on the basis of his presidency. But on the basis of his character…I can’t really think of many better modern political figures to emulate. Maybe this is because the selection pressures in national politics were such that a black politician had to have an impeccable record, but still.

As a meditation on race, the book does well. Particularly poignant was his description of his mother’s reasoning to send him back to his grandparents to study in the States:

Power. The word fixed in my mother’s mind like a curse. In America, it had generally remained hidden from view until you dug beneath the surface of things; until you visited an Indian reservation or spoke to a black person whose trust you had earned. But [in Indonesia] power was undisguised, indiscriminate, naked, always fresh in the memory. Power had taken Lolo and yanked him back into line just when he thought he’d escaped, making him feel its weight, letting him know that his life wasn’t his own. That’s how things were; you couldn’t change it, you could just live by the rules, so simple once you learned them. And so Lolo had mace his peace with power, learned the wisdom of forgetting; just as his brother-in-law had done, making millions as a high official in the national oil company; just as another brother had tried to do, only he had miscalculated and was now reduced to stealing pieces of silverware whenever he came for a visit, selling them later for loose cigarettes.

She remembered what Lolo had told her once when her constant questioning had finally touched a nerve. “Guilt is a luxury only foreigners can avoid,” he had said. “Like saying whatever pops into your head.” She didn’t know what it was like to lose everything, to wake up and feel her belly eating itself. She didn’t know how crowded and treacherous the path to security could be. Without absolute concentration, one could easily slip, tumble backward.

He was right, of course. She was a foreigner, middle-class and white and protected by her heredity whether she wanted protection or not. She could always leave if things got too messy. That possibility negated anything she might say to Lolo; it was the unbreachable barrier between them. She looked out the window now and saw that Lolo and I had moved on, the grass flattened where the two of us had been. The sight made her shudder slightly, and she rose to her feet, filled with a sudden panic.

Power was taking her son.

The Black experience in America is truly unique. Take every, any other ethnic group and their ancestors were (broadly) free migrants from abroad searching for a better life. Slaves did not freely migrate. They were abducted. And the scars run deep. The Italians, Irish, Germans, Mexicans, Chinese, and Indians were all able to assimilate over time. We even consider Hispanic population growth in various congressional districts as indicative of Trumpist shifts & leanings. Not so with those of African descent.

Obama is still only half-Black (but this makes him Black), and was raised by a white mother with ‘midwestern attitudes’. He still feels the weight of being Black on his shoulders absurdly strongly. Perhaps this is just par for the course for Americans? Perhaps grappling with one’s ancestry, identity, and heritage is simply a necessary step on one’s path to growth.

I’m a bit confused about this myself. My default has always been to consider myself as an individual and as an American (and to some extent a Westerner) first and to not care about my ancestry? Partially because I hated half of it for a while, then hated the other half of it for another while, but also because I feel that using it as a crutch—to excuse your actions, to feel like a victim—is bad.

Yet this is childish? In a sense to disavow your ancestry is to disavow your family, and that’s really only reserved for rebellious teenagers. I don’t want to be a rebellious teenager. But race is just such a strong factor in one’s life? It tints all your interactions and the way in which you interact with the world. In some ways it’s more determinative than sex because it determines the kind of people you interact with, and if you buy some cultural essentialist arguments it changes who you could plausibly be.

I don’t know what developing a healthy relationship to my own ancestry would look like? All of my heroes are just not in kind to me, and I’d like to preserve the facade which lets me think like I could be like them one day. But also I can just do what they did without being like them, and thinking I can’t is just…wrong? Probably? Hopefully?

Obama comes to the realization that:
My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t, end there.

You can start from the other end too.